Set Your Store Apart With a Niche Market

by | Aug 26, 2020

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” – Mark Twain

Originality is hard in any walk of life, but that’s especially true in the world of retail sales. Come on. Go shopping for almost any single product and you’ll find it, or slight variations of it, in different stores all over the place. You’ll find even more on the internet. It takes a truly imaginative mix of products, or a niche market, to make that kaleidoscopic offering seem unique.

Honestly, some of the most successful new brands are just modern or updated versions of age-old retail offerings.

  • Stitch Fix, Bonobos, Bespoke, Twillory, and other custom-made clothing companies are just a stitch in time newer and a little more technologically advanced than the turn of the century tailor’s storefront.
  • Zappos, Toms, Wish, Allbirds, and other direct-to-consumer shoe stores are just an electronic step in front of cobblers and shoe stores of the past.
  • Warby Parker, the online eyeglass manufacturer, does online what small-town optometrists have been doing for centuries.

So, what can you do to set your business apart? After all, a lot of hardware stores are now offering gifts, clothing, and more to attract beyond the LBM and tools crew. Many clothing stores, beauty salons and barbershops are serving libations to encourage shoppers to linger longer.

Find your niche market

There are plenty of ways to find your niche. Some are as simple as looking at your hometown.

John and Chris Henkle, who own Henkle’s Ace Hardware in Webb City, Missouri, did just that and came up with several ways to set their business apart. The first was the look.

To reach a wide range of customers, the Henkles brought is a variety of locally made products including gifts and scarves which attract a strong female clientele. And their garden center specializes in hanging baskets. The business sells close to 600 baskets annually. The store also focuses on B2B sales and delivery which is hugely popular in their rural small town.

In their effort, the Henkles checked off two of Entrepreneur magazine’s suggestions for finding a niche. They took something they were passionate about – John grew up in the lumber business and the couple owned a lumberyard before entering the hardware business – and the identified community problems they could solve. Approximately 18% of their business is B2B accounts to which they deliver.

Their effort earned them recognition from Ace Hardware as One of the Coolest Hardware Stores on the Planet in 2015.

Going with the flow

Geography often supplies niche markets. Often unique items, services, or retail opportunities are products of their environment.

In Dunsmuir, California, smack in the heart of the historic gold country, Dunsmuir Hardware offers gold prospecting supplies. And on the opposite coast, Pick and Shovel in Newport, Vermont capitalizes on the attraction of the region’s maple syrup industry by selling sugaring supplies.

Catering to visitors or tourists can create a myriad of possibilities. It’s basically marketing to your home turf’s strengths.

Coastal cities and small lakefront or riverfront towns can sell everything from bathing suits and resort wear to watercraft and fishing gear. Taylor Building Supply in Eastpoint, Florida is a hardware store that stocks saltwater sportfishing gear along with marine and beach products. Another brilliant niche for Taylor’s is hurricane shutter installation.

Mountainous areas like the Appalachia, Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Pacific Northwest draw people year-round for a variety of outdoor activities ranging from skiing – both snow and water – to hiking, boating and biking. John Austin and Sons Ltd, in Kinmount, Ontario, Canada, features custom-built docks and kayaks. Ace Hardware and Snake River Outdoor Sports in Pocatello, Idaho capitalizes on its location to sell outdoor apparel, camping, hunting, fishing, footwear and sporting goods.

Swimming against the stream

“Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.” – Sam Walton, founder of Walmart

Sometimes it’s possible to take a conventional product or idea and put a new twist on it.

KONO Pizza took one of America’s favorite foods and reshaped it. Instead of triangular or square cuts of pie, the company creates pizza cones, a lot like ice cream cones. The result has KONO outlets from Marlborough, Massachusetts to San Diego, California.

Southaven Supply in Southaven, Mississippi puts its own spin on home hardware. In addition to offering roughly 1,200 kinds of cabinet knobs and pulls, it operates:

  • Jewelry for Your Home – which offers furniture, lamps, handbags and jewelry.
  • The Outhouse – home décor and 100 different sinks and vanities.
  • The Patio – patio sets, fountains and water features.

Lehman’s Hardware Store in Kidron, Ohio, is smack dab in the middle of Amish country. Instead of trying to sell power tools and grills, like most of its competitors, the store caters to its Amish neighbors selling hand tools, kerosene lanterns, butter churns, and hand-cranked grain mills.

Find a good combination

“The key to competing and surviving against Walmart is to focus your business into a niche or pocket where you can leverage your strengths in the local marketplace.” –  Michael Bergdahl

For some businesses, finding a good combination is the secret to success. Like peanut butter and jelly, niche products paired together can create their own following.

Central Oregon has become a world-renowned location for micro-breweries. A business called Growler Guys set up tasting rooms in some local filling stations which now offers motorists several ways to fill up – gasoline, food and beverages on tap.

Guse Hardware in Minneapolis, Minnesota sells not only hammers and nails, but also operates Guse Green Grocer next door, which specializes in locally sourced and organic foods.

As the name might suggest, Powder House in Bend, Oregon caters to the seasonal attraction to Mt. Bachelor with sales and rentals of snow skis and boards. But when the flakes aren’t flying and the Cascades warm up, the store converts to patio and garden furniture giving it a year-round market.

You don’t exactly equate Michigan with the tropics, but Wise Do it Best Hardware brings some Caribbean flavor St. Clair, Michigan with tropical and freshwater fish and supplies.

Trending niches

Like it or not, niche markets or products often don’t last but can generate a big buzz and a lot of cash while they’re popular. Other niche markets aren’t niches at all, but they could be used to boost business.

Trending niches currently include:

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizing products exploded when the novel coronavirus closed societies worldwide. Breweries, distilleries and wineries whose tasting rooms were shuttered by governmental closures concocted hand sanitizer to stay in business. Apparel manufacturers from designer labels to Etsy businesses added face masks to their lines.

Mobile businesses such as food trucks were gaining popularity before COVID-19. They have gained momentum since the shutdowns. Mobile clothing boutiques, pet grooming, and salons are popping up as quickly as new virus cases.

CBDs are sold just about everywhere today from pharmacies to thrift stores. Makers claim they treat everything from anxiety to epilepsy in both humans and pets.

Products for people who work from home have increased exponentially because of the coronavirus shutdown in 2020.

Niches that aren’t necessarily niches include:

People spent over $95 billion on their pets in 2019, so pet products aren’t exactly a niche. However, designer pet foods, products and trinkets can create interesting niche markets. Designer foods and supplements can be found in almost any Google search. Cornell’s True Value in Eastchester, N.Y. offers its Horseman’s Corner equestrian shop while Kelton’s Hardware and Pet in Murfreesboro, Tennessee has high-end pet products and horse feed.

Craft teas, coffees, soft drinks, beers, ciders and spirits of any kind have been growing in popularity for years and can complement many businesses. These products can also connect a store to local artisans producing them creating valuable partnerships.

Niche considerations

As previously mentioned, geography is one way to find a niche. A couple of others are:

  • Price – luxury items or off-price are popular with different groups.
  • Demographics – a study of your customer base could provide a niche based on gender, age, income level or education level. Data gleaned from your customer rewards program, or sales history could provide insight.

And before you rush out and buy products to create your new niche market, first:

Examine your market. Would your existing customers buy these products? Does your store have enough tourist traffic to warrant bringing in regional gift items or recreational equipment and sporting goods? Are there any competitors offering the same or comparable goods?

Determine profitability. If you can’t make a profit, what’s the point? It’s not a good idea to take up valuable floor and shelf space with low-margin items.

Make a test run. You can use the internet – your web site or social media site – to test out your niche products. If they’re a success online, they’ll probably be a hit in your store.

There are plenty of ways to set a store apart from the competition. Niche products or markets can spice up your offerings to your current customers and entice new shoppers to visit.

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